Genesis 22 is a common passage people wrestle with. God is supposedly good and loving, and yet here he point-blank asks Abraham to kill his own son. How do we reconcile that reality with the truth about God we see throughout the rest of the Bible? Is this story an ancient tale revealing God as a brute or is it a beautiful picture of God’s character? I’m arguing for the latter.
After promising Abraham many descendents (12:2), entering into a covenant with him (15:1-21), confirming this covenant (17:4-14), and determining that Abraham and his wife Sarah will bear a child themselves in their old age (17:17-21), Isaac is finally born (21:1-7). It’s a joyous occasion worth celebrating. God has delivered on his promise. So far, so good.
But then things take an abrupt, confusing turn as we enter Genesis 22. In the first two verses, God commands Abraham to take this son and sacrifice him. I’ll admit, this tends to make me raise my eyebrows and squint a bit. Thankfully, with a careful reading of Scripture we can see the beauty of this text.
For starters, there’s a piece of information in verse 1 present for the reader but absent from Abraham as he’s given the command: this is a test. The implication is that God never intended for Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac. It’s all about Abraham’s faith. God has promised him repeatedly that he will make a great nation out of him through which he will bless the world; will Abraham stand firm in trust? One writer summarized the dilemma well, saying “Abraham had left his home in Ur and given up his past for the sake of God’s promise. Now he was being asked if he would trust God by apparently surrendering his future as well.”1. God understood the gravity of the request, emphasizing not only that Isaac is the fulfillment of a promise, but that Abraham deeply loves Isaac (v. 3).
Abraham, in faith, trusted God. The next morning, he got up and took Isaac and two servants on a multi-day journey to a mountain in the region of Moriah. It’s crucial to notice Abraham’s words to the servants in verse 5. There, he affirms that he and Isaac are going to worship God, and they will both return soon. Whatever happens on top of the mountain, Abraham believes that God will intervene. If he must sacrifice his son, he believes that God will raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).
This truth is solidified further in verses 6-8. Isaac astutely notices that everything is present for the sacrifice… except the sacrifice. Abraham answers that God will provide. Consider that to be strong foreshadowing.
Finally, on the mountain, Abraham prepared the altar, and then tied Isaac to it, pulling the knife on him and preparing to sacrifice him. No dialogue between Abraham and Isaac is recorded here, but I can’t imagine the tension present as Isaac was bound to the altar. Dad, if you’re reading this, don’t get any ideas!
Finally, in the height of the tension, the angel of the Lord stopped him, affirming his faith and obedience to God. The story ends with Abraham seeing and sacrificing instead a ram caught in a thicket. He praises God as Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord who provides, and is then reassured by the angel of the Lord that God’s promises to him will come true.
It’s time we ask our key question: where is Jesus in this story?
I would encourage you to take a few moments and reread Genesis 22, looking for the various connections to the life and work of Jesus. If you’re up for the challenge, try to find at least five connections before reading the rest of this post.
Now let me point out a few that stick out to me.
Starting in verse 2, God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the one whom he loves, is a sentiment echoed in perhaps the most famous Bible verse, John 3:16. Jesus is God’s beloved son (Mark 1:11), and yet God is willing to walk the very path he calls Abraham to walk in faith. The contrast here is that Jesus willingly offered himself as a sacrifice; Isaac was not active in the decision in Genesis 22.
Abraham and Isaac traveled alongside two servants, which can be reminiscent of the two criminals accompanying Jesus on the cross. Isaac carried the wood on his back as Jesus carried his cross. They were both raised (Jesus, literally; Isaac, figuratively) on the third day.
The sacrifice took place on a mountain in the land of Moriah– interestingly, this is the same location where Solomon would eventually build the temple (2 Chronicles 3:1). Burnt offerings, according to Leviticus, were to be male animals without blemish whose death would make atonement for the offerer. We know that Jesus is ultimately the spotless lamb who offered once for all for our sake on the cross (read Hebrews 9:1-10:18).
On the mountain, Jehovah-Jireh gave Abraham a ram (an adult male sheep) to offer instead of his son. God has likewise provided a spotless ram in our place, his head caught in a crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29).
There’s one more connection I want to bring to light, one that will show up repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. In verses 11-12, we’re told that it’s the angel of the Lord who stops Abraham from killing Isaac. A few verses later, in verses 15-18, this angel of the Lord reconfirms God’s covenant with Abraham that he’s established in the preceding chapters. I find it interesting that it’s God who talks to him directly at the beginning of the story, but then relegates the rest of the interaction to one of his angels. Why is this? Why has God gone silent?
The answer? He hasn’t! If you remember the introductory post to this series, I referred to theophanies– visual appearances of God that point to the incarnation– as one way we see our Messiah in the Old Testament. This is one of those times! See, the Angel of the Lord is best understood to prefigure Jesus!
The Angel of the Lord is a unique messenger of God who appears numerous times in the Old Testament. But this angel is not just a messenger. He’s also the Lord himself. This messenger of God communicates God’s words, but also speaks and acts in ways that are exclusive to the Lord himself. Read the story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and Moses in Exodus 3 to see a couple other examples of the angel of the Lord appearing to also be the Lord himself. This distinction provides a basic framework for our understanding of the Trinity, that Jesus is both God and yet distinct in personhood from the Father.
Praise be to God that he is willing to do all that he asks of his people, that he has given up his beloved Son for our sake, that we may be reconciled to Him! Praise be to God that he knows the purity of our relationship with Him is more important than the blessings we receive from Him!